Why is the government focussed on closing the gap when it should concentrate on preventing it?

13th September 2013 at 15:44

Ian Menter, professor of teacher education, University of Oxford, writes:

The current government has been focusing much of its educational comment and policy on ‘closing the gap’. As the Michael Gove put it in the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching:

“Our schools should be engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined. But, at the moment, our schools system does not close gaps, it widens them.  

Children from poorer homes start behind their wealthier contemporaries when they arrive at school and during their educational journey they fall further and further back.
The achievement gap between rich and poor widens at the beginning of primary school,  gets worse by GCSE and is a yawning gulf by the time (far too few) sit A levels and apply to university. 
This injustice has inspired a grim fatalism in some, who believe that deprivation must be destiny. But for this Government the scale of this tragedy demands action. Urgent, focused, radical action.”
Surely the obvious conclusion to draw from this analysis is to close the income gap between rich and poor. If there is a grim fatalism here it is the fatalism that rejects that possibility of doing this and places the entire responsibility on the schools. Of course, we know that schools and teachers do have an impact on achievement but to ignore the root cause of educational inequality is, to put it politely, misleading.  
There are at least two major problems with the “closing the gap” discourse. First, many initiatives that have sought to improve schooling have had the effect of either maintaining or even widening the gap because they have a more positive effect on higher achievers than on lower achievers. But secondly and more fundamentally, most of the initiatives have the simple error of addressing symptoms rather than causes.
From the Sixties on, educational research has demonstrated consistently that achievement is, of course, closely associated with socio-economic patterns. Indeed, the recent report from the National Children’s Bureau as well as research reported in August in the journal Science all confirm the continuing direct impact of poverty on children’s learning.
So it is preventing the gap that should be the prime focus for Government. And of course that is what many early years initiatives aim to do before primary school. Such initiatives must be defended.  But even when such work is successful, ‘the gap’ will still emerge unless we address social and income inequalities.
Apart from early years initiatives, the most significant attempt to close the gap under this government is the pupil premium. Where this is being used carefully it is certainly securing some improvements, but it will not eliminate the gap. 
There is also a range of pedagogical initiatives that focus on the most vulnerable children – such as now being undertaken by the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and the Education Endowment Foundation – and these may have an impact for the recipients, but they do not address the underlying causes of ‘the gap’.
Indeed, at the same time that we observe these initiatives we see cuts to welfare benefits such as, for example, the ‘bedroom tax’. Is the government commissioning research into the impact of this on children’s learning? A recent Royal Society for the Arts report highlights the serious effects of moving school during a school year and we know that some children in the lowest income families are having to move house because of it. Is the government taking seriously the possible impact on these pupils?
An administration which was truly committed to closing the achievement gap in schools would focus more on the wider reasons for the existence of the gap – such as welfare reform – and not just on schools.
This article is based on an extract from Ian Menter’s inaugural presidential address to the British Educational Research Association. (Full text will be available shortly at bera.ac.uk)


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